Ali Ansari: Is America ready to go to war again? The Iranians think not, and that's the problem

Sanctions will only reinforce the contempt of Iran's leaders
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The Independent Online

Another deadline passes. More decisions to be made. What will the international community, in the form of the United Nations Security Council (plus Germany), now do about Iran's controversial nuclear programme?

The United States, in the bombastic guise of its UN ambassador, John Bolton, is reassuringly secure in its moral certainty that Iran must pay the cost of its defiance. The Europeans, along with the Russians and the Chinese, are less sure. Part of the reason for this apparent caution is an acute awareness and anxiety by European diplomats in particular of the seriousness of the situation. Aware of the complexities of Iran's politics, and full of foreboding about the logic of confrontation which is gradually gathering pace, they are also anxious to impart the seriousness of the situation to an Iranian administration which appears to be gleefully gloating its way to a political dead end, with potentially catastrophic military consequences.

Of course the cause of this conceit is the belief among Iranian negotiators that the West's bark is far worse than its bite. To some extent, their view is justified. The very seriousness of the problem has paradoxically encouraged a willingness to procrastinate and defer. Trapped between hardliners in Washington and Tehran one gets the sense that Europeans would rather this particular problem just disappeared, a development that Western bureaucracies on the whole have no difficulty in facilitating. One way of doing this is by creating a problem we cannot actually solve, or whose solution would be potentially so devastating, it would be better left unsolved.

The Iranian nuclear crisis is a classic example of a bureaucratic bungle dictated in part by the vagaries of political expediency. Nobody doubts the "seriousness" of the problem, but how serious is a matter of some debate. Is it really worth going to war over? What would the consequences of a war be? The Iranians have not been shy in telling us. Moreover, their enthusiasm in telling us has been reinforced by events which have transformed Iran's regional position since 2003. Iran makes no secret of the fact that an attack on its nuclear facilities would result in massive retaliation throughout the region, including Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf region. The recent debacle in Lebanon is a salutary lesson in the limits of hard power and the ability of Iran to retaliate through proxies at Israel.

The alternative route, much favoured by the French, has been to focus on the legal detail: Iran's non-adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Here again, however, the results have been far from satisfactory. Not only is Iran's "non-adherence" itself a matter of some debate (despite, or indeed because of, the insistence of the Americans), the West's track record on adherence to international law has been less than impressive in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. Moreover, Iran's infringement of its NPT obligations are not considered by everyone (including many Europeans) to be so damning as to warrant punitive sanctions, let alone a military solution.

Such doubts were skilfully exploited by Iran's negotiators (at least until many of them were sacked or resigned in the aftermath of Ahmadinejad's election), who, European diplomats discovered, were more than capable of debating the legal nuances of the NPT. Europe's approach was very much like that of a military commander who agreed to fight a battle on terrain of his opponent's choosing, with weapons chosen by the other side. Given such self-inflicted limitations, and the self-imposed choice of doing nothing or everything, it is no wonder that in our current situation, we prefer to defer the problem. Unfortunately, given the nature of the government in Iran, doing nothing is likely to reinforce their conceit, thereby forcing the Europeans into the arms of the American hawks. It is an uncomfortable paradox.

So what is to be done? There is little doubt that some form of sanctions will be imposed but these are unlikely to be very harsh and so will only increase the contempt of the Iranian government. More serious would be the adoption of a Chapter VII Resolution, which would open the door to military confrontation, a reality which will not only urge caution, but for which the Iranians consider themselves well prepared.

The Iranian government considers Lebanon a victory and a warning to the West, paying little heed to the very real damage done to Lebanon's economy. And here perhaps is where the battle lines should be redrawn. So focused are we on the nuclear crisis that we have blinded ourselves to the broader issues from which the contradictions and hypocrisy of the Ahmadinejad government are all too apparent.

So busy are we enhancing his popularity as a champion of Iran's "national" rights, that we have ignored the real political and economic damage being done to the country. It is easy to win the popularity of the masses by throwing money at them - all politicians know that - but how many people are aware that while his last budget hugely increased the income of a variety of religious organisations (in some cases more than doubled), the state welfare budget was increased by a paltry 3.8 per cent? How many are aware of the hugely restrictive election law being considered? Or the Minister of Intelligence's recent comments that academic collaborations - especially in the fields of the social sciences - with foreigners will be viewed with extreme suspicion? Many Iranians, including broad swathes of the elite, are appalled at the long-term damage to the politics and economy of Iran being done by this exercise in vulgar populism, cloaked as it is in the language of nationalism, and provided with a veneer of legitimacy by the continuing focus on the nuclear crisis. Nothing exemplifies the absurdity of this approach as the muted response that greeted the decision by Iran to dispatch the notorious judge and suspected murderer, Saeed Mortazavi, as its delegate to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. It was an act of grotesque contempt.

The West needs to change the terms of reference and show that the welfare of the Iranian people is as important as the security of the state of Israel. These are the battles the West should be fighting, and for which many Iranians, at all political levels, frustrated and disempowered as they are by apparent Western disinterest, would be grateful. The time has come to think outside the box.

Dr Ali Ansari is the author of 'Confronting Iran'

Alan Watkins is away